Industrial Strength

Jean Prouvé made smart, modern furniture for everyday life. Now his work is smashing auction records.

When you see a piece by Jean Prouve—the Kangourou chair, say, which brought $136,800 at a Sotheby's auction last December—it's easy to understand the passion of the Prouvé hunters. Until recently, these fanatical collectors would seek out anything and everything made by this French industrial designer (1901-1984), whose rather unglamorous work (ordinary furniture, institutional buildings) nonetheless combined sculptural elegance, hard-edged simplicity, and fierce intelligence. It's also easy to envy collectors such as Robert Rubin and Patrick Seguin for having fallen in love with Prouvé's creations before the rest of the world did. It was Rubin who in 1999 hired specialists to travel to the Congo Republic to salvage the Maison Tropicale. The prefabricated house, which Rubin considers the "apogee of Prouvé's work," had stood abandoned and riddled with bullets, significant only to the cognoscenti of design.

Such opportunities are no more. His pieces are now setting sales records for modernist designs, and the market for work by this designer from Nancy, France, is, as Richard Wright of Chicago's Wright auction house puts it, "not for the faint of heart."

This is the ironic fate of a constructeur, as Prouvé described himself. An early project, built in 1937, was a prefab vacation house intended for working-class families, one of several such structures he designed (the Maison Tropicale was another). Within a 10-by-10-foot space, the clean-lined steel box provided everything: windows, a built-in bed, a bathroom, and a kitchen. A team of five could assemble it in a day and break it down at summer's end.

Prouvé's projects were the antithesis of expensively turned-out architecture; his genius lay in how he made the most utilitarian object utterly modern. At the height of World War II, he worked on low-cost barracks, prefab housing for refugees, and the Pyrobal, a stove that could burn just about any fuel. Even after he had opened his own shop—Ateliers Jean Prouvé—and gained complete control over design and production, he continued to work largely with institutional clients.

In fact, all the record-breaking pieces at the December Sotheby's auction were such commissions. A reading table with lighting was devised for the Maison de l'Etudiant in Paris (final bid: $556,800), and a pair of perforated metal doors were created for the Maison Tropicale commission but never shipped to Africa ($680,000). Prouvé was "like a chef who did all his best cooking for an army," says Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "He always worked with as much economy as possible, always focused on getting as much as possible out of his materials. And because of that, he really pushed the envelope of what they could do."

The recent enthusiasm for Prouvé's work is propelled by more than academic interest, however. According to James Zemaitis, director of Sotheby's 20th Century Design department, it is also due to current fashion catching up with Prouvé's vision. Tastemakers like Marc Jacobs and Larry Gagosian have added a Prouvé or two to their collections. The objects' industrial functionality is tempered by a very human intelligence, even warmth, and "fits in incredibly well with certain kinds of contemporary interiors," Zemaitis says. "If you put [a Prouvé piece] in a loft in TriBeCa, it will look great." Or in a revamped L.A. ranch house, or in an office by cutting-edge designer Leo Marmol.

That may explain the sharp upswing in prices. "The market has been shaped by a very particular group and sensibility," Zemaitis says. "Prouvé has been closely allied with the tastes of contemporary art collectors used to this kind of hypergrowth." Then there's the simple matter of scarcity. Few masterpieces remain to be found; there's now little for the Prouvé hunters to chase. Instead, they're just like the rest of us: Prouvé lovers.

More About Prouvé

Peter Sulzer, an architecture and design historian, has written the definitive but hard-to-come-by catalogue raisonné (the first volume was published in 1999). At 96 pages, Penelope Rowlands's Compact Design Portfolio on Prouvé is brief yet profusely illustrated. You may be able to find Galerie Patrick Seguin's 1998 exhibition catalogue at used-book stores. Otherwise, follow the auctions. In New York, Christie's holds four modern design auctions a year (March, June, September, and December), and Sotheby's has two (June and December).

Prefab Shock

For the rarest Prouvés, prices have skyrocketed. A pair of never-used doors designed for the Maison Tropicale project sold last year for $680,000—ten times the estimate. According to James Zemaitis, director of Sotheby's 20th Century Design department, few works of this caliber will ever again make it to the block. "There may be some savvy collectors who bought a Kangourou chair years ago who will put them out on the market," he says. Even then you should expect to pay at least six figures. As for the Maison Tropicale (right), on which collector Robert Rubin spent $1 million to retrieve from the Congo Republic: It is a safe bet the house will never be up for sale. However, you can see it assembled at Yale's Art & Architecture building through June.

The Minor Works

Jean Prouvé's big commissions included multiples of furniture, which are what mainly come on the market. The most coveted works are those in original condition. Six chairs from the Cafeteria des Arts et Métiers, one of the dining rooms at Paris's Cité Universitaire, brought $70,000 at a Wright auction. A bookshelf/room divider, a collaboration between Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand for the library at the Cité Universitaire's Maison du Mexique, sold for $36,000. You can find an Antony chair—one of the best known and most widely copied of Prouvé's designs—for around $10,000 to $15,000, and some desks go for double that. Furniture maker Vitra did reproductions for a few years; these are easy to spot, though, says auction-house owner Richard Wright.

Names to Know

JAMES ZEMAITIS Director of the 20th Century Design department at Sotheby's; 212-606-7170
JOSHUA HOLDEMAN Head of 20th Century Decorative Art & Design at Christie's; 212-636-2000
RICHARD WRIGHT President, Wright auction house, Chicago; 312-563-0020
PATRICK SEGUIN Founder, Galerie Patrick Seguin; 5 Rue des Taillandiers, Paris; 33-1/47-00-32-35